Everything about the morning was wrong for our stated purpose of photographing the hoodooed De-Na-Zin and Bisti wildernesses. The incandent sun mounted ever higher as shadows withdrew like turtles’ heads into their carapaced shells and the unfolding land flattened into a two-dimensional tapestry. Our Trailblazer dragged a plume of dust that rose fast and settled slowly in the unmoving air as we advanced westward hemmed by ragged barbed wire fences and few signs of civilization other than the rare mudwalled hogan. Dust-devils spawned in the distance and died away. Drivers we encountered seemed incurious of our lot and refused all method of greeting but stared stonily forward through streaked and begrimed windshields. Jim said it was due to their culture. I said it was because we were biligaana.
It was impossible not to feel our alienness. We were interlopers in a sovereign nation not our own and everything surrounding us hammered home the fact. The stunted trees, the brittle grasses, the reddish sandy soil, the turquoise sky, the birds—Cassin’s kingbird! Say’s phoebe! Black-chinned sparrow!—only accentuated the distances separating us from our homelands.
The trailhead for De-Na-Zin was a barren scrape with a single path cutting away to the north. We got out and stretched away the kinks and began festooning ourselves with our accoutrements only to stop and gape at a pair of elderly Navajos ambling down the road. They moved eastward without glance to the right or left, seemingly oblivious to the miles of nothingness on all sides, their transit almost regal as if they alone were lords of this land. They appeared fashioned from the earth itself, their raiment an admixture of modern and traditional and all of it tattered and frayed. We watched in stunned silence and never thought to lift camera for what we witnessed was a sacrament and holy. Neither spoke but moved in stately unison into the rising sun until the sun took them and they were no more.
The trail when we set out was crisscrossed with the tracks of reptiles and rodents and all manner of birds and the booted soles of hikers. Each imprint scored deeply the sand to endure until subsumed into another or erased by the wind. A hundred yards from the vehicle we came across a broad pad the size of a saucer with no other tracks to embellish it. Jim stooped over in study and announced that we were no longer at the top of the food chain. Our eyes swiveled to the sage and junipers and roved for tawny shapes with golden feline eyes and found them only in our imagination, but it was enough to inject a new wariness. It was fitting in that otherwordly place to believe our every move was monitored.
And for all that, De-Na-Zin was a disappointment. Reaching the hoodoos would require much more time that we’d allotted so after a short period where we again split up with Jim and Chod disappearing over a short bluff and me tracking what turned out to be a mockingbird with a distinctly Navajo dialect we reunited and continued westward across the dusty miles to the ribbon of asphalt where we rejoined the world.
The greater world, we discovered, had descended on the Bisti and lay encamped at the top of the bluff overlooking the main arroyo like some silvered army glittering in the sun. On the opposite side of the wash was a smaller camp with tents billowing in the soft breeze and semi trailers and miles of heavy electrical cables snaking across the ground and arc lamps and a host of workers bustling about. A flagman waved us to a halt and asked our destination and we replied but he appeared altogether dubious as if none in their right mind would wander this sunbaked desert willingly or without adequate salary. To our own query he said they were filming a television segment and did not want to be disturbed but after a while waved us on with an admonition to go at a snail’s pace but to go without gawking.
We were without question a source of curiosity among the workers and gofers zipping past on their four-wheelers but after a few hundred yards we faded into the bleached light and after a mile we entered a land riven with gullies and cañoncitos and disappeared altogether. On either side rose spires and crenellated towers and mushroom-capped mounds of cracked mud and hillocks of fine pebbles each another hue, some scarlet and others stygian purple. Nor did we walk together but struggled after Chod who took off alone as if wanting no more to do with us. After searching through a labyrinth of alluvial fans we came upon him sitting on a stone and Jim asked that we stay together or at least within eyesight.
“Fine,” he said, but it was anything but fine and we knew it.
I felt poisoned somehow and had no way of understanding the part I was to play among them. Jim tried refereeing but Chod and I clashed again and again and always over minor trivialities that seemed at the time of major import. Our bickering carried with us to a distant row of hoodoos and back the long miles to the vehicle and into Farmington and beyond to Aztec where the ultimate break came in a squabble over a map. I’ve never been one to back down from a fight and was not about to start at this juncture and yet I still held out a glimmer of hope that Shaman could magick a truce or at least defuse the situation, but he could not. The best he could do was announce with finality that the trip was finished.
“We’re going home,” he said. “It’s been a good trip, but we wore out our welcome.”
(Conclusion next week)